What will Michel Aoun’s presidency mean for Syrian refugees facing an increasingly hostile climate in Lebanon?
Beirut, Lebanon – Thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley face displacement as a deadline to evacuate their informal tent camps expires on Saturday.
Camp residents within a seven-kilometre radius of the Rayak airbase were given five days to remove their homes following an eviction order delivered orally earlier this week by the army.
The move, reportedly taken for “security” reasons, would represent the largest-ever eviction of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
It would cut a circular swath through one of the most densely inhabited areas of camps in the country, uprooting as many as 11,000 people across at least 92 settlements.
“We’ve been at it since six in the morning, in the rain,” says Alaa’a Turan, as he and his relatives rip piece after piece from the frame of a tent shelter they once built together in the Salaam wa Makhaba camp, on the outskirts of Dalhamiyeh township.
For Turan and his family, this is their third forced displacement since they fled government shelling in Homs five years ago.
“It’s a shame. But if the government tells us to do something, we do it. Nobody knows the reason,” he adds, shaking his head.
Talib Bizzazi, originally a painter from Homs, is the manager of the camp, and lives several tents over from the Turan family.
As camp leader, he received the word instructing all 600 inhabitants to vacate their homes.
“Someone from the army called me and said, ‘you have five days to get out of here’,” he says.
“Then, they came in person the next day, just to make sure we heard.”
The Salaam wa Makhaba camp, holding about 75 white-faced tarp tents packed wall-to-wall within a dizzying maze of alleys, is among the luckier settlements contacted.
The army has simply instructed the Turan’s and their neighbours to move 500m away, to a vacant potato field owned by the same landlord.
But for hundreds of Syrian families with just hours remaining on the clock, it’s still unclear where home will be next.
So far, more than 4,000 people have vacate their land since the order was issued earlier this week. Most of them have temporarily moved into other informal camps around a few neighbouring towns, or into smaller urban centres such as Bar Elias, according to data collected by local organisations.
But while local NGOs and aid agencies scramble to pull together resources for the humanitarian fallout of the decision, finding relocation areas that could accommodate the potentially overwhelming number of displaced people has been a tall order.
Unlike in other neighbouring countries such as Jordan and Turkey, Lebanon has no formal refugee camps – a policy stemming from a complex history with Palestinian refugees and worries that a long-term Syrian presence will disrupt the country’s sensitive sectarian balance.
Instead, a sprawling web of smaller informal settlements has been erected across the region on privately-owned land, clinging to the sides of highways, under bridges, and tucked away in the corners of potato fields in the fertile Bekaa Valley.
Further complicating matters, a law was introduced in October 2016 by the Bekaa Valley Governate banning the establishment of any new camps in the region.
While the Lebanese Ministry of Interior and Municipalities has given preliminary special approval to the town of Majdel Anjar as a site to relocate the displaced families, none of the aid workers involved were certain where everybody could be settled exactly.
The lack of official refugee camps is also an issue, forcing refugees to rent on private land from landlords who often engage in predatory practises.
Even in the Salaam wa Makhaba camp, where residents say there have been no issues with the landowners, each household pays approximately $800 a year in rent – a daunting sum, since Syrians have no right to work legally in the country.
For the Salaam wa Makhaba residents, the move might be small, but the disruption of daily life and destruction of housing materials, latrines and concrete foundations is not, according to Bizzazi.
“Look at this wooden, at these toilets,” the camp manager says, flailing his arm agitatedly towards the ruins of a razed home at the edge of the lot.
“It’s all destroyed. We can never use this to build again.”
The proximity of the new settlement to the old location has also raised scepticism among some that the move is really about security.
“This can be closely linked to the new government’s strategy to push people to go back to Syria, making it harder and harder to renew you residency, making it harder and harder to attend school,” says Rouba Mhaissen, founder and director of the Sawa for Development and Aid group.
“The [Rayak] airport didn’t just suddenly emerge, it has been there for six years.”
Mhaissen says the decision has disrupted the work of local organisations like hers, forcing them to halt or abandon new projects for schools and community centres in the camps.
While Syrian camps have been evicted and demolished by the government in the past, aid workers describe previous attempts as ad hoc and scattered.
The two-day event brought together 70 donor countries and aid groups from across the world and resulted in a $6bn commitment from the international community – much of that bound for Lebanon.
Lama Fakih, the Human Rights Watch director for the Middle East and North Africa, condemned the Lebanese government’s rhetoric to donor countries in the face of the latest eviction.
“As Lebanese leaders in Brussels tout Lebanon’s humanitarian achievements and call for more aid, refugees here are living in fear of losing their homes,” she says.
People close to the government say that officials are satisfied with the pace of the evacuations around Rayak.
If the moves continue rapidly, they say, it is unlikely that the military bulldozers will descend on the settlements on Saturday as they have been threatening.
However, the acceptable timeframe for the evictions has not been clearly defined either. Many aid workers and residents also fear that the trend will intensify and that more evictions will follow.
With approximately 80 percent of their old building wood destroyed in the process of each move, and no clear funds forthcoming to buy new materials, nobody is sure how they will be able to house everybody at the new location – or how safe it will be to stay there.
“This is not the first time this has happened and there is a lot of fear,” says Turan.
“We are moving everything to this place, but in any moment they could call us and this will start all over again. So the people are afraid.”
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